The saga of Northland, a sophisticated hunter-gatherer civilization thriving behind a vast wall shielding it from the invading waters of the North Sea (Stone Spring, 2011), continues in a tumultuous alternate 1159 B.C.
Drought and famine grip Europe and Asia. The eruption of an Icelandic volcano spreads ash through the atmosphere, chilling the air and further damaging the ecosphere. The Northland’s trade with the Americas has gained them both maize and the potato and thus may hold the key to staving off starvation. A deposed but extraordinarily charismatic Hatti (Hittite) queen and her lover (actually owner), an ambitious Trojan scavenger, seek access to these foodstuffs, while political infighting in Etxelur (the region closest to the Wall) about whether to grant such access has already led to murder. This is worldbuilding at its very finest. Baxter’s research of ancient cultures and natural history (detailed in a helpful afterword) and his extrapolation of what Northland societal structure might be like create an utterly real-seeming physical, political and economic landscape. His understanding of the human heart and its frailties paint convincing and powerful character portraits, particularly when exploring the various ways in which people will behave when pushed to the absolute end of their emotional endurance.
Gripping, well researched and sharply intelligent.
In style and violence, a hybrid of the movies Transformers and Independence Day: the sequel to Mecha Corps (2011).
Capt. Matt Lowell is the interstellar Union’s finest Mecha Corps warrior, not least because of his total recall—he calls it his Perfect Record—and his ability to merge his Mecha’s sensory interface, effectively his consciousness, with those of other Mecha pilots. The Mecha are huge, massively powerful, morphing robotic machines developed by Dr. Salvatore Roth to combat the Union's enemy, the Corsairs. Previously, Matt joined the Mecha Corps in order to hunt down and kill Rayder, the genetically engineered HuMax superman who murdered his father. Matt’s latest mission is to destroy a secret lab on a remote planet where more HuMax are being created. But, to his horrified astonishment, he discovers that the Union is behind both the lab and the HuMax, and the mission involves exterminating essentially helpless beings. Unable to stomach the pointless slaughter, he turns rogue and flees with his Mecha to the Corsairs, a vastly more disparate and advanced group than he had been led to believe. And this is just the first of a series of surprises that will cause Matt to question everything he has been told. The narrative moves at a thousand miles an hour, with just enough depth to the backdrop to avoid obvious pitfalls, and makes worthy efforts at character development, though the plotting’s as far-fetched as you might expect, with Matt able to summon up still another battle-winning superpower whenever he needs it.
Slam-bang action with never a dull moment: imagine a 21st century Lensman series, if anybody still remembers E.E. “Doc” Smith, without the latter’s lofty black-and-white moral tone and awful prose.
This first collaboration from McDevitt (Firebird, 2011, etc.) and Resnick (The Doctor and the Kid, 2011, etc.), developed from a 2010 story by McDevitt (spoiler alert: don’t read the story first), takes the form of a conspiracy involving the moon landings. And no, Stanley Kubrick didn’t fake them.
By 2019, the U.S. economy is still grinding along the fringes of recession. Jerry Culpepper, NASA’s public affairs director, loves his job and still believes in its mission, even though the only foreseeable future is one of continuing slow decline. But then a routine release of background material from the late 1960s turns up an oddity. Before Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, there were two dress-rehearsal moon shots, both of which orbited the moon but did not land. Yet, a recording of a chat between Houston and Sydney Myshko, captain of the first of the test missions, shows Myshko apparently preparing to descend! And Aaron Walker, on the mission after Myshko, wrote in his diary that he landed on the moon. Both men are now dead and cannot be questioned. But was there a coverup? Of what, and for what possible reason? Multibillionaire entrepreneur Morgan “Bucky” Blackstone sees a chance to goose the complacent Washington establishment and, not coincidentally, whip up enthusiasm for his own, strictly private enterprise, planned moon landings. As other evidence, suggestive yet inconclusive, trickles in, Jerry tries to keep a lid on things. Meanwhile, POTUS George Cunningham, an essentially decent man with a strong interest in NASA but hampered by intractable budgetary constraints, finds himself in a bind: If there was a conspiracy and he didn’t know, he’s out of touch and an idiotic dupe; if he did know, he’s a liar and part of the coverup. Against the solid and affectionately rendered NASA backdrop, the authors expertly crank up the tension and maintain it throughout via a suite of thoroughly believable characters.
A top-notch, edge-of-the-seat thriller in which there are no villains, only mysteries.
After several months being mostly dead (Ghost Story, 2011, etc.), Chicago wizard Harry Dresden’s back in his body…and of course, back in trouble in the 14th Dresden Files novel.
Harry’s attempt to have himself killed and thus avoid becoming Queen Mab’s champion/assassin, the Winter Knight, has failed, and his first target is Mab’s daughter, Maeve. That means he must figure out how to kill an immortal faerie while defending himself against the vicious, treacherous nobles of the Winter Court and the suspicions of the Summer Court. Harry also learns the disturbing true nature of Demonreach, the sentient island in Lake Michigan now under threat from the demonic Outsiders. If he is to surmount these multiple crises in the next 24 hours, he’ll have to regain the trust of his old friends and allies and master the skills and unsettling desires associated with the Winter Knight’s mantle. Harry’s struggle to reconnect with his friends, in the wake of their devastation at his death, the progress they’ve made without him, and their fear of what he’s become, are very real and poignant. Butcher also plots a long, long game, beautifully integrating small elements from the very first installment onward and gradually revealing their significance. But given that he tries to be so careful about these details, it is a shame that he isn’t assisted by more rigorous copy editing to clean up the continuity errors which continue to riddle the series. For example, it would be lovely if Butcher would explain how faeries, for whom the merest touch of iron and its alloys causes searing pain, can drive/ride in cars and operate various types of guns.
None of that, however, will stop readers from grabbing ringside seats the next time Harry Dresden goes forth to stop the apocalypse.
Intimidating sequel to The Quantum Thief (2011), Rajaniemi’s spectacular, paranoid-conspiracy, hard sci-fi whodunit debut.
Thief extraordinaire Jean le Flambeur owes his continued existence to the Oortian warrior Mieli, her intelligent spaceship Perhonen, and her mysterious patron, the pellegrini. To pay the debt, he must execute another impossible heist: to loot the mind of a member of the Sobornost, the upload collective that rules Earth and whose ultimate goal is total control of reality itself. His target is Matjek Chen, the oldest of the Sobornost “chens,” or avatars. On Earth, meanwhile, the Lady Tawaddud of House Gomelez, rulers of the Sirr, a city built out of the Shard, the habitable fragments of a vast crashed Sobornost spaceship, must solve a murder that threatens the ruling council. She will need help from Sumanguru, a sort of detective Sobornost avatar who, like all his kind, is vulnerable to the wildcode which swarms in from the desert. Tawaddud’s father, Cassar, has selected a husband for her, but she trusts him even less than her sister Dunyazad, who seems less interested in solving the murder than keeping Tawaddud in her place. Above it all, seemingly, the Sobornost conduct their Great Game against the mysterious zoku, who manifest as magnificent jewels and have solved problems the Sobornost are unable to. This is all set forth within complex, intricately structured stories-within-stories, neologisms that yield meaning only after many repetitions and changes of context, and never a word of explication to smooth the way. Formidably challenging, with few of the thrills and spills that made the predecessor volume such a delight—would that Rajaniemi had kept at least some of his vast intellectual capacity tucked out of sight—but, mostly, rewarding.
Something like Ted Chiang meets John C. Wright, moderated by Stephen Hawking.
Part murder mystery, part alien-contact thriller, Hamilton’s latest doorstopper (The Evolutionary Void, 2010, etc.) takes place in the early 23rd century when, thanks to the invention of wormhole technology, distant planets have been discovered and colonized.
On St. Libra, a world of advanced plants but curiously no animals, not even insects, huge “bioil” farms produce the gasoline that, pumped via wormhole to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in northeast England, feeds Earth’s insatiable appetite for petroleum products. Instrumental in all this is the powerful North family, three generations of clones whose original three clone brothers have developed a friendly rivalry. Predictably, then, when the corpse of a North is found floating in the River Tyne, the Norths and other powers that be take a strong and immediate interest. Capable detective Sidney Hurst doesn’t want the case—he can’t stand the politics, and this figures to be nothing but. Yet, there are intriguing aspects: The North cannot be identified, and nobody admits to having mislaid one; and the murder method is—almost unique. Twenty years ago on St. Libra, another North clone and his entire household were slaughtered by the same grisly means. The convicted murderer, Angela Tramelo, who was working in the house as a prostitute, protested her innocence. Problem was, she claimed the killer was an alien monster. So now, Sidney confronts the possibility that a monster is loose in his city. Meanwhile, a military expedition is hurriedly organized and sent to St. Libra with Angela (who’s by no means as innocent as she seems) aboard, but it runs into terrifying complications. Hamilton’s development proceeds in familiar fashion: complicated but well-articulated plotting, life-sized main characters, intriguing extrapolation, plenty of crisp action and padding—via barely relevant subplots, long chunks of scene-setting and bizarrely verbose introductions to bit players that even regulars will skim or skip.
One of Hamilton’s better outings, caveats and all.
Beginning a sort of spinoff series taking place, chronologically, between Campbell’s last two outings (Beyond the Frontier: Dreadnaught, 2011, and Beyond The Frontier: Invincible, 2012) wherein the influence of "Black Jack" Geary is palpable, though he makes no actual appearance.
The brutal, ruthlessly hypercapitalist rule of the Syndicate is faltering thanks to its inability to defend the people against either Geary or the alien enigmas. The Midway system, with its numerous hypergate passages to other Syndicate systems, is pivotal. Most citizens and even some CEOs are weary of being terrorized by the Gestapo-like political police, or snakes. Exiled CEO Artur Drakon, having long plotted rebellion, now launches an all-out effort to seize control of Midway’s planets and exterminate the snakes. But he doesn’t control what’s left of Midway’s space forces: for that, he needs an alliance with fellow-exile and would-be rebel CEO Gwen Iceni. In a carefully coordinated action, Iceni commandeers some of the warships and attacks those forces who remain loyal to the Syndicate or are dominated by snakes. After initial successes, both Drakon and Iceni declare independence. But their Syndicate heritage isn’t so easily shaken off; neither can afford to trust the other, yet disaster looms if they don’t. Both must maintain this delicate balance while rooting out nests of snakes and traitors and dealing with ambitious underlings. Campbell maintains the military, political and even sexual tension with sure-handed proficiency. In previous volumes, the emphasis leaned toward battles; here, while not neglecting them, Campbell focuses on the human element: two strong, well-developed characters locked in mutual dependence, fumbling their way toward a different and hopefully brighter future. What emerges is a fascinating and vividly rendered character study, fully and expertly contextualized.
All the more impressive for being a significant departure from previous entries.
Two more novellas in one volume, continuing Mosley’s Crosstown to Oblivion series (The Gift Of Fire / On The Head Of A Pin, 2012), the common theme being, "a black man destroys the world."
Longer, more substantial and carefully worked-out, Merge begins when Rahl Redman notices something resembling a dead branch in his apartment. The being, an Ido, is one of many refugees from a remote planet with an eerie and complex ecology. He feeds the creature, and slowly, it transforms into something approximating human. Meanwhile, the news is rife with stories of other Ido that drink blood, spew poison gas or explode. They can only survive on Earth by merging with an existing life-form. Earth’s governments, meanwhile, decide that the Ido represent an existential threat and prepare to use any and all means to exterminate them. Rahl decides to merge with his Ido and help their race—an action that will bring him through transcendental bliss and unimaginable agony to, perhaps, salvation. Disciple, by contrast, is the more mystical, less logical, and weaker partner. Hogarth “Trent” Tryman, a nonentity toiling in a dead-end job, receives a bizarre instant message from someone calling himself Bron. What Bron has to say seems unbelievable, but in a matter of days, Hogarth finds he’s now the boss of the corporation. Bron, it emerges, serves a godlike entity called the Stelladren, which if it dies, will wither the souls of all intelligent beings everywhere. But to preserve the Stelladren, most of humanity must die. So what is Mosley offering here? Analogy, parable, allegory? Are only black Americans disaffected or alienated enough to go along, or do his protagonists just happen to be black?
For thoughtful readers, the questions posed by the book are well worth pondering.
Addition to Banks’ wonderful space-opera series (without the middle initial, he also writes impressive mainstream novels) about the far-future galactic Culture (Surface Detail, 2010, etc.), a liberal-anarchic, multispecies civilization guided and sustained, more or less invisibly, by Minds, artificial intelligences that take such physical forms as spaceships and habitats.
Vastly more intelligent than humans, millions of times faster and mostly benevolent, Minds are truly godlike entities. (Asked “Is this what gods would actually be like?” Banks replied: “If we’re lucky.”) Now, the Gzilt civilization, an almost perversely peaceful military society whose precepts arise from the Book of Truth, an ancient tome containing technological and intellectual predictions nearly all of which have proved correct, are preparing to Sublime, or vanish, into a set of higher dimensions where existence is thought to be almost infinitely rich and complex. As the Gzilt make their preparations, several rather primitive scavenger species gather nearby (one ship comes into orbit, as Banks puts it, with the “warp-engine equivalent of loud clanks and clouds of black smoke”), ready to grab whatever goodies the Gzilt leave behind. But then, a sudden, devastating attack destroys the Gzilt Regimental High Command. The reason seems to involve a shattering secret about the Book of Truth and the establishment of the Culture 10,000 years ago. One of the few survivors, reserve Lt. Cmdr. Vyr Cossont, a bewildered four-armed musician with, self-confessedly, no military skills, receives orders to locate and question Ngaroe QiRia, possibly the Culture’s oldest living person and the only one who might have some idea why the Book of Truth is so important and what really happened 10 millennia ago. Problem is, even assisted by Berdle, a powerful Mind avatar, and an erratic battle android who’s convinced everything’s merely a simulation, can she survive long enough to complete her mission? Scotland-resident Banks’ Culture yarns, the science-fiction equivalent of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, brim with wit and wisdom, providing incomparable entertainment, with fascinating and highly original characters, challenging ideas and extrapolations, and dazzling action seamlessly embedded in a satirical-comedy matrix.
The inaugural volume of a new urban fantasy series, from the author of Naamah’s Blessing (2011, etc.).
Pemkowet, a small resort town on the shores of Lake Michigan, provides the usual facilities for its wealthy summer residents, while the many tourists hope to catch a glimpse of one of Pemkowet’s eldritch inhabitants—fairies (the toothy, vicious kind), vampires, naiads and so forth—whose benevolent supervisor is Hel, the Norse goddess. Daisy Johanssen, daughter of a minor demon and raised by a single mother, is Hel’s enforcer and designated liaison to the Pemkowet Police Department, where she works as a part-time file clerk. Most of her duties are routine, like warning off fairies who try to abduct human children, but when a young college kid drowns in suspicious circumstances, Chief Bryant calls Daisy in—he drowned in salt water, and his pals are downright evasive about what really happened. Carey handles the investigation expertly. On the human side, the dead boy’s parents instigated a political movement to banish the eldritch. As for the supernatural, well, Daisy’s partner, Officer Cody Fairfax, is secretly a werewolf, and she’s had a crush on him since high school. Daisy’s voluptuous friend, Lurine Hollister, was a B-movie actress and is, openly, a lamia. The vampires are sleazy and uncooperative. And as for the ghouls: Having been rejected by both Heaven and Hell, they’re immortal, feed on emotions rather than flesh, and Daisy finds their leader, Stefan Ludovic, dangerously attractive. She has personal issues too, being on the outs with BFF Jen Cassopolis, while her father keeps offering to awaken her demonic powers; this, according to received eldritch wisdom, would unleash big, bad trouble for reality itself.
Beautifully articulated and intriguingly populated: Altogether, an arresting kickoff.
Second installment of Wright’s ferociously dense and convoluted far-future space opera involving hyperintelligence, aliens and artificial evolution (Count to a Trillion, 2011). Warning up front: read the first book first.
Thanks to the discovery of an alien storehouse of knowledge and source of energy, former Texas gunslinger Menelaus Montrose transformed himself into a supergenius. Unfortunately, so did his colleagues who, led by Zimen “Blackie” Del Azarchel, desire only to rule the Earth. Menelaus tried but failed to prevent them. However, aliens known as the Domination of Hyades regard themselves as Earth’s overlords, and in 8,000 years, they will arrive to take ownership. Blackie and company, then, intend to force the development of a suitably advanced yet compliantly slave-worthy population. Menelaus’ wife, meanwhile, is heading at near-light speed for a remote globular star cluster in order to confront the Hyades’ bosses’ bosses. She will, of course, arrive back at Earth 50,000 years too late to prevent the Hyades’ occupation, so somehow Menelaus must prevent the slavers from exterminating humanity until she arrives. Menelaus arranges to enter cryonic suspension, with instructions to wake him periodically so he can gauge what Blackie and his co-conspirators have been up to and, hopefully, counteract them. When he wakes, however, Menelaus discovers that the tombs where he and others were preserved have been ripped open and plundered by Blackie’s Blue Men minions—merely the latest example of Blackie’s efforts to create ideal subjects for the Hyades. So: An impressive torrent of information, factual, extrapolative and speculative, explicated via a series of dazzlingly erudite conversations that build weird post-humans into recognizable characters. Oh, and a plot that goes nowhere at all.
Astonishing stuff that leaves readers with plenty of work to do.
Connolly, in her debut, delivers a supernatural spin on Jane Eyre set in a gothic, alternate version of the Victorian era, in the aftermath of a war with powerful, forest-dwelling beings called the fey.
Jane Eliot, a young teacher and former governess, responds to a notice which reads, in part: “Governess needed, country house, delicate situation.” Dorie, the child in question, was born during the Great War between humans and fey that ended years ago and has telekinetic powers as the result of her mother, now dead, being “taken over” by a fey while pregnant. Jane dedicates herself to teaching the peculiar, stubborn child but wonders whether Dorie’s disquieting powers can be curtailed. Jane herself was disfigured by a fey curse during the war, and she wears an iron mask that partially obscures her face; without it, her glowing scar can supernaturally infect others with rage. Meanwhile, the child’s father, the charming but mysterious artist Edward Rochart, creates strange masks for his clients and hides a dark secret. Jane soon comes to realize that the war with the fey may not, in fact, be over after all. Connolly has created a complex and well-drawn world here, and the story is indeed an original and imaginative take on the gothic-fiction tradition. Some readers may find the prose somewhat bland and the occasional neologisms a bit distracting (such as “feyjabber” as a term for an iron spike). That said, Connolly will keep most readers engaged with her impressive worldbuilding, as details stack up about the Great War, the fey and a scarred postwar society.